.”..to have the experience of one’s absolute singularity and apprehend one’s own death, amounts to the same thing. Death is very much that which nobody else can undergo or confront in my place. My irreplaceability is therefore conferred, delivered, “given,” one can say, by death.”
– Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death
Carey Mercer would probably be a little peeved by the above epigraph, not least because he explicitly stressed in the press release for Carey’s Cold Spring that the LP is devoid of any one “over-arching theme or conceptual thread.” His words are (unsurprisingly) more or less true, but even though death and its imminence/immanence isn’t omnipresent throughout the record, it’s the single biggest presence within the borders of the sixth Frog Eyes full-length, one that underlies and acts as a mediator between the album’s less morbid concerns and issues. To return to and depart from Derrida, the apprehension of mortality and senescence is perhaps, of all the things encountered over the course of 70 or more years, the most decisive spur to leading a life and becoming the kind of person one might want to be, and it’s just such “self-becoming” and “life-leading” that Carey’s Cold Spring focuses on when it’s not directly confronting the subject of human finitude itself. This is why it can be pushed that even when Mercer — over the breadth of nine songs that are nowhere near as “cold” as their heading would suggest — centers himself on such topoi as the preservation of long-held dreams or the maturation of a daughter, he’s still implicitly or indirectly referring to the peculiarly motivational, galvanizing power that our inevitable demise and deterioration can hold over us, and it’s ultimately why the album attains a fascinating balance between the negativity of death and the positivity of life.
But there are undoubtedly instances where the struggle against atrophy and extinction are openly targeted. This isn’t entirely a surprise, at least not when informed that between Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph and the completion of Carey’s Cold Spring Mercer suffered the loss of his father (and was also, if this bereavement weren’t already enough, diagnosed with throat cancer some two days after the final mixes for CCS were completed). It’s therefore little wonder that death is something of an occasional preoccupation for the British Columbian, with cyphered reference to its threats and approaches often coming in the form of either images of gradual disintegration or allusions to bodies of water. Slow-burning opener “The Road is Long” features such lyrics as “Judith is scared/ She fears the violent sea,” conjuring the portent of a flood that not even the strongest of us can escape, while in parallel its foamy sloshes of reverb’d guitar and martial drumming insulate a wall of meditative foreboding that is somehow more inviting than it logically should be.
This invocation of an aquatic deluge that can’t be negotiated also occurs in “Don’t Give Up Your Dreams,” where Mercer repeatedly burbles “When you’re running from the wave” in the midst of a furtively bulging crescendo of fuzz and distortion. But here it should be swiftly inserted that rather than wallowing in defeatism or fatalism, Carey’s Cold Spring’s stance on the prospect of its own expiration is one of dignified and steely resistance, which despite the semi-regular expressions of disquiet that freckle its lyrics is largely borne out in music that candidly rallies, collects, and discharges itself in decorous but no less affecting ripples of accumulated tension. The upshot of this is that, even though Frog Eyes now lack the wild-eyed mania of their The Folded Palm or Tears of the Valedictorian days, their patiently coalescing strokes of stately indie emphasize our introductory notion that the presage of death, as well as the experience of loss, can be as much an instigator of personal growth and actualization as it can be an eradicator.
Yet for parts of the record, it appears as though Mercer has trouble accepting and translating his own advice, which in fact creates an interesting friction/dichotomy between the somber tenor of some of his usually cryptic lyrics and that of the blearily optimistic instrumentation that carries him (this friction is possibly the source of the album’s title). With “Your Holiday Treat,” he sings of being “[b]orn in a moving truck/ So you’re never moving back,” thereby complementing the dusky Americana of the swooning verse with an intimation of life as an irreversible movement toward decay. And if this isn’t convincing enough, the chorus bolsters this impression with the line, “And old man, you have had/ You’ve had your holiday treat,” which if nothing else would seem to suggest that for Mercer youth might be little more than an anomalous blip on what is otherwise a slow road to ruin, not that you’d necessarily infer this from either the romantically inclined slant of his distinctively impressionistic voice or the song’s dreamily ascending bridge, both of which prevent the track from veering anywhere near naked self-pity.
If there’s one detraction to the album’s name, though, it’s that these meditations on death and what to do in response to your mortality make for a less stylistically varied anthology than previous efforts. As cited above, there’s less of that high-strung, rampant energy that characterized earlier installments in the Frog Eyes health plan, although it should be countered here that, within their freshly narrowed dynamic range, the band manages to coax a greater spectrum of timbres and colors out of their instruments, meaning that their “emotional range” is arguably as broad as it’s ever been. And it should also be reiterated that not all of the nine takes on Carey’s Cold Spring are expressly concentrated on death, with the effervescent roll of “A Duration of Starts and Lines That Form Code,” for example, directing its attention towards regeneration and renewal, towards incrementally forging one’s life anew after a series of mistakes or misfortunes (so perhaps it still is in some remote way about loss or mortality).
And hopefully Carey’s Cold Spring will similarly forge both Mercer’s and Frog Eyes’ lives anew, although it’s sad to say that, because of the uncertain state of Mercer’s health, we could be waiting longer than we’d like for a tour or a follow-up. Yet as things stand, the album is a strong-willed and impassioned flouter of its all-too unavoidable demons, and there’s little doubt that the codas for songs like “Noni’s Got a Taste For the Bright Red Air Jordans” and “Needle in the Sun” are respectively as beautifully fragile and as rousing as anything they’ve done in the past. So maybe, just maybe (and regardless of how destructive it always eventually is), Derrida wasn’t simply talking out of his ass when he called death a “gift.”